The light of our lives
‘Mr Gordon devoted himself principally to the construction and management of lighthouses, especially in the colonies — “Grace’s Guide: British Industrial History”
The late Michael Dolding of the Department of Marine & Ports Services was a professional man of the first order, but one who also took a great interest in the historical background of the works under his command.
Years ago, we collaborated to ‘put the hogfish back’ on Hog Fish Beacon, a sea marker off Spanish Point made by SW Smith, Clerk of Works at the Dockyard, from the very hard limestone then obtaining at that developing naval base in the late 1820s.
One of Michael’s other historical achievements was the production of the booklet, “Bermuda Light: the Story of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse”, which chronicles the building of the major light of our lives, since its placement high on a hill in Southampton Parish in 1846.
The booklet opens, not with a prayer that the Light may work when needed, but with a poem by Michael’s wife, Ellie, dedicated appropriately to the light of their lives, their only child, the lady Tamsyn.
‘The blackest storm you e’er did see,
No deeper, endless waves could be,
A rolling, wet A.B did shout,
“Land ho” and all did turn about,
And glimpsed a twinkle o’er waves cast,
And all did sigh, relieved at last,
A glowing, guiding outstretched arm,
To lead us all away from harm,
Around Bermuda’s reefs to bay,
And so repeats from day to day,
Of never tiring, endless will,
Our Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, Lighthouse Hill’
Before the Light was cast out over the ocean for the first time on 1 May 1846, many a mariner regretted the absence of such a seaward sentinel, when he heard the calamitous sound of Bermuda’s reefs opening a fatal hole in the hull of his wooden vessel, sending it to the bottom.
Prior to 1846, several hundred ships came to grief on the water-bound rocks surrounding Bermuda, many to the amusement and thieving activities of men from some sections of the Island and sectors of the community.
The light of Gibbs Hill is a monument of first order to the Steam Age, the period that replaced ‘iron men and wooden ships’ with new vessels of wrought iron powered by steam, rather than environmentally friendly winds.
It was in that age that the last large Bermuda cedar vessels were made, such as the Cedrine (wrecked at the Isle of Wight on her maiden voyage in 1862, but her scented timbers are yet to be found in the roof and ceilings of the small Mottistone Church on that island).
Cast-iron was also one of the metals of choice in the period, as steel on an industrial scale was yet to come.
Bermuda had four great monuments to that period, of which the great (1859) Floating Dock, Bermuda, survives only as rotting ironwork at the mouth of the bay at Spanish Point and the grand Royal Naval Hospital (1818) is to be found in the rubble of the road near Woody’s Bar on Boaz Island.
The other two are the Commissioner’s House at Dockyard, now restored and a part of the National Museum, and the subject of this article, Alexander Gordon’s extraordinary Gibbs Hill Lighthouse.
Gordon was a Scottish engineer who became enamoured of the use of prefabricated cast-iron for buildings, of which his Bermuda lighthouse is a shining example.
His father had invented a system for compressing gas and making it usable in a portable form and Alexander followed him in the gasworks business in London, but also patented apparatus to do with the actual lights of lighthouses.
At the age of 67, he died at Sandown on the Isle of Wight, having made at least seven cast iron lighthouses for British Americas.
The first was made and erected in six months in 1841, showing the efficacy of prefabricated construction methods; the structure is to be found at Morant Point in Jamaica.
His second work was lit up in 1846 at Gibbs Hill, while the third was placed at Cap Pine in Newfoundland in 1850.
The latter was followed by two other lighthouses in 1852, one at South Point, Barbados and the other at Grand Turk, in what is now part of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies. A late Gordon lighthouse is on Great Isaac Cay, north of the island of Bimini in the Bahamas archipelago, while another is on Lobos Cay (thanks to Annie Potts, Bahamas Lighthouse Preservation Society, for identification).
The Great Isaac Lighthouse was apparently shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but not erected until 1859.
So its construction can be included in that Annus Mirabilis which saw the publication of the world-changing book “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin that set out his theory of ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’, a process that can perhaps be observed in the unique development of Bermuda mystery roses.
The Great Isaac Cay lighthouse was the tallest at 152 feet, with Lobos Cay being close at 148 feet. The Bermuda example is the next tallest at 117 feet; however it is probably the highest above sea level, its apex being some 265 feet above high tide.
That is followed Morant Point at 115 feet, South Point at 89 feet, Grand Turk at 60 feet and the shortest at Newfoundland, being 50 feet tall.
Gibbs Hill Lighthouse is now undergoing repairs and it is hoped that this time around, the seams between the cast iron plates will be fully caulked before painting, for the corrosive power of rust is enough to blow the monument apart in due course.
Several of the other Gordon lighthouses in the Americas apparently need maintenance, although that at Grand Turk has been recently refurbished and is a major tourist attraction, as Gibbs Hill has been for many years in Bermuda.
Such restoration would be music to the ears of Alexander Gordon, the designer, and George Grove, the engineer constructor of the lighthouses at Jamaica and Bermuda, the latter later very famous, not for banging on cast iron bolts, but for his monumental study, “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians”, published 1878—1880.
As Sir George, he was the first director of the Royal College of Museum and before that he contributed light to the “Dictionary of the Bible”, perhaps with an ear to the hereafter.
On another beam, engineer Charles William Scott did not reach his 33rd birthday, and was erecting the Bahamas lighthouses in his late 20s.
In his obituary in the Memoirs of the Institution of Civil Engineers, this was said of him, which may not have amused the denizens of those islands: “He was always particularly careful of the supplies for, and the health of, the working parties, precautions most essential in such a hot climate, and even though the site of the operations might be from 100 miles to 200 miles distant from whence supplies could be obtained, he managed to keep the men satisfied and well in hand — no easy matter considering that they had generally been bred and brought up as wreckers, pirates, or even worse.”
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum. Comments may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-5480.
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